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What is Embodied Cognition and How Can it Help Your Back-to-School Prep?

Right about now, many parents are worrying what summer may have stolen from their kids’ heads.


“Our days have been so laid back, will the gains my child made in math last year be erased over the summer?”

“Yikes, I just realized we haven’t had a family reading night in weeks. Will this mean our kids will fall behind?”

“Now that summer school is over, what do I do over the next month to make sure there’s no slippage come September?”

These are valid concerns. Research confirms that the accumulation of summers without consistent learning activities will take a toll on a child’s potential. A 2013 Baltimore study showed 65 percent of the reading achievement gap between low and high socio-economic ninth graders could be traced to what they learned – or failed to learn – over their cumulative childhood summers.

A scary thought, for sure. Yet if your child or teen has played outside over the summer, gone to the park or walked the dog on a regular basis, hiked, swam, played badminton, or enjoyed water balloon fun, you’ve done a lot to avoid summer brain drain. Physical movement activates brain cells; the more physical activities, the greater likelihood of readiness and receptivity to learn new things. In fact, an emerging new field called “embodied cognition” prioritizes sensorimotor experiences – bodily active engagement with our environment – as critically important elements for thinking processes.

Dr. Monica Cowart of Merrimack College uses this helpful example to explain embodied cognition.

The various sensorimotor experiences that occur while performing an action in a particular environmental context further specify the type of categories/concepts the organism is capable of forming. For instance, it is common for a small child to have a basic understanding of concepts related to macroscopic objects, such as grass, that are likely to exist in her immediate environment, while having little to no real understanding of concepts related to microscopic objects, such as bacteria, that might be found in the same environment…she has sensorimotor experiences that are directly linked to the macroscopic objects in her environment, and these experiences serve as the foundation for concept formation. Not surprisingly, direct experience of microscopic entities will most likely occur later in the child’s life, when she is introduced to tools, such as a microscope, that will enable the detection of these entities.

There’s a good case for expecting this little girl to love high school biology because she loved romping in nature when young.

Authors Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal explain embodied cognition in this way in their thought-provoking book, “Stealing Fire.”

[New studies] reflect a sea change in how we think about thinking. They move us from “disembodied cognition,” the idea that our thinking happens only in the three pounds of gray matter tucked between our ears, to “embodied cognition,” where we see thinking for what it really is: an integrated, whole-system experience….And today, with so much of our emotional and social lives mediated by screens, we’ve become little more than heads on sticks, the most disembodied generation of humans that has ever lived.

Kids wouldn’t need fidget spinners to expend excess energy if they were involved in full body spinning, swirling, twirling, or swinging more often.

Brains work well with bodies that move

When my sons struggled with spelling, I decided to try a more “whole system spelling experience.” I pulled out the old trampoline so they could use their arms, facial expressions, and hands to mime out the letters for each word while they were jumping. I stood by and reminded them of the correct letter if they couldn’t think of it. With a few repetitions, they “jump-spelled” the words correctly. Later, they wrote down the words, engaging part muscle memory, part visualization (since they were remembering in their mind’s eye what body posture they formed for each particular letter) and part cognitive recall.

At ages six and nine, my boys thought “jump-spelling” was a fun game. From my research, I considered it seriously significant to their academic success. I knew that the more I involved their bodies in their schoolwork, the more likely they would experience themselves as competent learners. And they did.

Rats taught me about the relationship between thinking and movement – lots of rats from the groundbreaking 30-year research of Dr. Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkley. Diamond (who died recently) was one of the founders of modern neuroscience.

In her seminal studies, she observed rats living in cages without toys, and other rats in cages surrounded by toys such as wheels and balls, which enabled them to push, roll, climb, and happily move their bodies in more positions than the rats in toy-less cages. Diamond found that those rats grew less dendrite and synaptic structures than the rats living with the toys. These cages she called “enriched environments” since they supported the development of larger and heavier rat brains.

Yet compared with the wild rats in the Berkley hills outside of Dr. Diamond’s laboratory, even “enriched cages” fell short. The rats in their natural habitat who were running, climbing, and moving about naturally with other rats had more and denser neurons than any laboratory rat.

Movement matters for mood

The outdated notion that our brain is the only neural-networked organ in our body has been replaced by these fascinating facts:

  • The heart has about 40,000 neurons that play a central role in shaping emotion, perception, and decision-making.
  • The stomach and gut, referred to by scientists as the enteric nervous system, contain more than 500 million nerve cells, 100 million neurons, and 30 different neurotransmitters. Now dubbed the “second brain,” the gut also contains 30 neurotransmitters, including 90 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin, regulating our moods and feelings of well-being.
  • Both heart and gut regularly “talk” to the brain, and vice versa. Some scientists now refer to this triad as “our three brains.”
  • Bodies that walk, run, jump, reach – exercises that not only work through all manner of movements but also aid in the communication of those neural networks in the brain, heart, and gut – making for more emotionally-stable, self-regulated children and teens.
  • Even small changes to our body posture can have profound effects.

Try it yourself by assuming the posture of Wonder Woman or Superman: hands on hips, elbows wide open, legs solid, feet firmly planted. Observe how your breathing changes and how you feel. Naturally more confident, right? No wonder little ones want to don those capes. The visceral changes automatically produce different thoughts and attitudes.

Harvard psychologist Ann Cuddy researched this “power pose” and found that, with as little as two minutes spent in the pose, subjects showed a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 15 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

Build confidence and reduce stress for the upcoming school year by encouraging Wonder Woman and Superman play now. Then, to create other embodied thinking activities for your kids, think: whole system experiences and lots of movement

Embodied cognition is as easy as setting up an obstacle course with pillows for a five-year-old or a neighborhood treasure hunt for an 11-year-old. Be the parent to bring jump rope and hopscotch back on your block. Why not? You will soon see positive changes in how your child handles academic challenges. Expect to notice increased attentive focus, stick-with-it-ness, as well as better memory and intrinsic motivation. With more embodied cognition experiences you can anticipate a renewed curiosity and zest for learning, too. Count on it. That’s the design of the brain/heart/gut system.

And, when the school year starts, don’t forget to spend two minutes in that power pose yourself to protect your parental confidence. Then when you say, “Time to do your homework,” your voice and attitude will mean business, making compliance the only option.

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Burnout is something we all experience and stress from your finances may play a major part in that. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to combat financial fatigue and finally feel like you're in a positive relationship with your money.

Here are a few tips that will help to reduce your money stress—to ensure that you're equipped with an actionable plan to take control of your finances and finally meet your money goals.

1. Know where you stand

The best way to counteract getting overwhelmed is getting organized. First thing's first: rip off the band-aid, look at how much your household has spent (and on what). Spend time checking your bills and looking at your bank account balance and credit statements to get a clear picture of where your finances are at.

2. Adjust your budget

Rewrite your budget to fit your current reality. Budgeting can help you see where you can cut unnecessary expenses and increase flexibility in your family's choices down the line. If you have to tighten your belt for the first month or so of the year to ensure you're paying back your holiday debts, so be it.

If budgeting feels overwhelming, start with an app that can simplify it. Mint, for example, allows you to create budgets that make sense for you. You Need a Budget breaks down your spending as well.

3. Take action to boost your credit score

Here are three ways to do just that:

  1. Set up autopay: Whether or not you make payments on time is the most important element in the calculation of your credit score. As long as you pay your bills on or before the deadline, your score will be in good standing. Turbo is a great, free resource to monitor how your credit score is affected by your bill payments.
  2. Know your credit utilization: Something that we don't always take into consideration is our credit utilization. Your credit utilization is the ratio of your credit card balances to credit limits. If you're using your credit cards responsibly and paying bills on time, you will lower your credit utilization percentage, thus increasing your credit score.
  3. Keep old accounts open: Your credit age makes up 15% of your credit score, and the only way to increase the age is to keep old accounts open and avoid opening new ones.

4. Set clear goals and hold yourself accountable

Does your family have big vacation plans, or maybe a new house is on the horizon? Make sure that you're considering both short and long-term goals early on, so they don't creep up on you. Be honest with yourself from the get-go so you can plan and prepare for your upcoming expenses. Once you've set your goals and your focus is on getting back on track, hold yourself accountable by setting regular check-ins to track your progress.

5. Be easy on yourself

Events, like the holidays, birthdays or vacation are meant to be celebrated, and that means festivities, fun and (maybe) some frivolousness. Don't beat yourself up if your bank account looks different than you expected after they're over. As long as you're actively working toward your financial goals, being consistent and being patient with yourself, your bank statements (and financial fatigue) will even out.

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Baby clothes are SO cute.

Maybe it's because they are typically either designed to make children look like little bears or mini-adults. Or maybe it's because they're just so tiny? 🤷 Any which way you look at it, they're beyond adorable. I mean—what human can resist an infant who looks like a tiny, soft bunny?

Cute as they are, they're also kind of pricey. And babies grow quickly, which means they need new sizes quickly. Oh, and also they get poop and spit-up on a lot of stuff, and then they eventually graduate to stains that are of the paint and peanut butter variety.

The lesson? The cost of baby clothes (and don't get me started on shoes that fit them for two seconds) adds up, but on the other hand—with the amount they grow and stain things—you sort of feel like you need a lot and that you're always looking for the next size stuff.

I swear, I just brought up the 18-month clothes, but now I need to get the 24-month size clothes out. (How is such a large part of motherhood constantly cycling through clothing that fits/doesn't fit your baby anymore?)

Cue: Hand-me-downs.

I found out the sex of my babies each of the three times I was pregnant: girl, girl, and then girl again. So, let's just say, we have gotten our money's worth with children's clothes over the years. Plus, my kids have cousins around the same ages so we've gotten a fair share of hand-me-downs from them, along with random pieces like snowsuits or extra swaddle blankets from friends. They've all been a godsend.

I've always been kind of sentimental about clothes—I can often tie memories to what I was wearing. My 21st birthday party? That very short blue and green floral number. The night my husband proposed to me? An ugly work outfit that I changed out of before we went out to dinner to celebrate (😂). My hospital stay for my youngest daughter? New black pajamas I treated myself to.

But somehow—likely the extreme cuteness levels—baby clothes kick the sentimental levels up about a hundred notches.

I remember the first piece of baby clothing I got as a gift when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. It was a sweet pink one piece with a little teddy bear in the center. It had an eyelet detail to it and the feet looked like little bear paws. My mom gave it to me the night we told our families that we were having a little girl.

I remember imagining how the tiny little human inside me would be able to fit into this tiny little outfit.

I remember imagining what it would be like to button her into it and hold her while wearing it.

I remember finally dressing her in it and marveling at how amazing all of this was. I was a mother, and this was my baby.

I remember buying each of my children's coming home outfits and what they wore for their first Christmas. I remember seeing each of them in specific outfits that the other one wore, truly in awe that this was a new human we created, in the same outfit the other human we created wore.

I remember putting a hand-me-down sweater on my daughter that was once her father's sweater. I never knew clothes could melt my heart until that day. Seeing some of the one piece pajamas my girls wore all the time—like those monkey jams and the multicolored striped Zutano onesie—bring me back to the time of my life when I was a "new mom" again.

But then I remember thinking, okay, we have a LOT of clothes, and we can't keep them all. Even if we have another baby at some point down the road, we need to get rid of a lot of stuff now. It's overwhelming.

So, as Marie Kondo might advise, I've sorted through the clothes that no longer fit my kids and I've kept the pieces that still spark joy. Those pieces are now used as doll clothes or are safely tucked away in my children's memory boxes in the basement so that they can have them when they're older.

The rest? We have either passed them on as hand-me-downs to other families or we've donated them. And honestly, giving another family who could use our hand-me-downs (we've spared them the ones with poop and spit-up stains!) feels just as great, if not greater, than scoring helpful hand-me-downs for your own kiddos.

It's one way the village is there for you in motherhood. I can't, unfortunately, get to my sister and my niece five hours away from me to drop off a container of soup for dinner or to take her to the park to give my sister a break for an hour—but I can pack up my daughter's clothes and bring them down the next time we visit.

In the busyness of our day-to-day, my friend and I can't nail down a time to get the kids together—but she can lend me a snowsuit for my youngest to use—coming in the clutch and saving me about $50.

Getting a bag of hand-me-downs from another mom is equivalent to getting a big, genuine hug from a mama who knows how hard this all can be. She is thinking of you, reaching out to you and extending a helping hand. And the best part is that this helping-hand-me-down chain can continue because the clothes she gives you can then be passed along to another mama and so on and so on.

Who knew that these little cute pieces of clothing could connect us all in such a gushy, beautiful way?

To all the mothers who have passed their hand-me-downs on to another mama in need—thank you. Keep on thinking of ways to help your fellow moms when you can, because we really are all on this wild ride together.

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Christmas Eve is a rare birthday, and it's a fitting birthday for a baby girl who was a gift to her own family, and those of other sick babies.

When Krysta Davis was four months pregnant with her daughter, Rylei Arcadia Lovett, Krysta and her husband Dereck got some heartbreaking news. Baby Rylei had Anencephaly. Her brain was underdeveloped to a fatal degree. Doctors gave Krysta the option of having Rylei then, in her second trimester, or carrying her to term so that her tiny organs could be donated to babies who needed them.

"If I wasn't able to bring my baby home, at least others could bring theirs home," Davis told ABC affiliate News Channel 9.

As heartbroken as she was, Krysta carried her baby girl for five more months, giving her body time to grow the organs that would be such an amazing gift to families who were in a kind of pain the Lovetts know all too well.

Doctors told the couple that Rylei would probably live for about 30 minutes after birth, but Rylei held on for an entire week. "There's no way to describe how amazing it felt. When you go to thinking you'll only have 30 minutes with your child and you get an entire week," Davis told News Channel 9.

For that week, Rylei got all the cuddles and skin-to-skin contact a baby could ask for. "I wouldn't trade this week for anything in the whole wide world," she wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Rylei's memory, adding that she was so proud of her daughter and the fight she put up.



Rylei was then taken for surgery, and although some of her organs were no longer viable due to oxygen loss, some very important ones were.

"They said her heart valves will go toward saving two other babies and the lungs will be sent off for research to see what else can be learned about Anencephaly from them," Krysta wrote.

Krysta and Dereck only got to hold onto their baby for a week. It's not fair and that pain is unimaginable. But now, two other families will get to hold their babies for a lot longer. It can't take away Krysta's pain, but it does make her happy to know that somewhere, another mama is holding a little piece of Rylei.

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One morning, after a rousing rendition of up-every-two-hours-with-a-teething-baby, bleary-eyed and fully-caffeinated, I texted my best friend:

I am 100% done having children. I can't do this again.

She came through with some sympathetic words, mood-lightening emojis and a gentle reminder that this is temporary. "It's the fatigue talking," she suggested.

But no, it wasn't just the fatigue talking. That morning, sitting like a zombie in my office cube, I meant it. The night before, as I rocked my youngest and stroked her wispy baby curls, I knew I was done.

She chewed on her fingers and looked up at me with wide eyes and a tear-stained face. We locked eyes, and while I didn't resent her at that moment (how could I?), I did feel a sense of finality with this stage of motherhood.

I realized that I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to watch her grow into a person and move beyond the baby years.

Eventually, life moved beyond that evil emerging molar, and we settled back into our routine. I returned to being a functioning member of my team at work. And at home, I'd catch myself smiling, looking at my two girls as they played together with my husband. This is what our family is meant to look like, I thought. Life is loud and full and happy. I don't need anything else.

Then, one night as we were getting ready for bed, after a visit with some friends who are expecting their first baby, my husband said it: "I miss when you were pregnant."

My heart raced a little—surely he didn't mean it. He must just be having a weak moment after seeing our friends with their baby. HE had been the one who was adamant that two children was enough for us. HE had been the one to quickly shut down any "what ifs" that I'd raised. How could he be saying this right after I told myself we were done?

So, I reminded him. "No, you don't. You don't miss my cankles or carpal tunnel syndrome or my high blood pressure. Or my complaining and flopping around trying to get comfortable in bed with no less than six pillows. Really, you don't."

But he missed the other stuff, he said. The magic of it all—feeling the baby move, wondering if it was a boy or a girl and what our family dynamic would be like when the baby arrived. "Relax," he'd said. He was just being wistful. He assured me that there were no more babies are in our future.

As he rolled over that night and went to sleep (easily, might I add), I lay awake reliving his words. I knew what he meant. Growing a family together is a special time, one filled with awe. After this particular conversation, I was 75% sure we were done having kids.

Life settled back in again, but this time my 4-year-old threw me. She climbed up on the couch, into my lap, and put her arms around my neck.

"Mommy," she sighed and paused dramatically as though a big proclamation was looming. She pulled back and looked me in the eyes, "I'd like a brother."

I laughed it off and explained that she had a sister, which was so great. I only had a sister, Daddy only had a sister and we are all very happy people. She brushed me off after a couple of minutes and ran off to play.

But then I found myself thinking. What's one more kid, really? We know what we're doing. We'd be so much more relaxed. We already have a minivan for cryin' out loud!

In my heart of hearts, I believe we are done. I'm grateful for what I have and I love our family, but there are small moments where I catch myself wondering if a little boy would round us out. If we just waited until our youngest was a little older…

It's these moments of second guessing myself—the wondering, the daydreaming—that get me. But it's also the big moments of practicality and reason (hello, day care costs) that then reel me back in. We're doing fine just the way we are.

So, like I said…

That's how I know I'm 50% sure we're done having children. 😜

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